The Theme is Freedom

M. Stanton Evans, former editor of The Indianapolis News and chairman of the American Conservative Union, is now director of the National Journalism Center, in Washington, D.C. His exposition here of the place of religion in American public life is a remarkable synthesis of history, sound philosophy and political judgment.

In the classic phrase of Fr. Francis Canavan, the great Fordham Jesuit, the present stage of Western culture can be described as “the fag end of the Enlightenment.” For three centuries, philosophers and politicians have tried to organize society as if God did not exist. They sought to govern man according to the Enlightenment premises of secularism, relativism and autonomous individualism. The result has been not an increase, but a contraction of freedom and an increasing subordination of the individual to the interests of the state which is liberated from any law higher than itself.

The author of this book takes issue with the basic notion of the liberal view of history which is “the supposed clash between religious precept and the practices of freedom.” In this liberal view “the idea that one can favor both religious belief and individual freedom [is] a hopeless contradiction.” On the contrary, Mr. Evans notes the “correlation of Christianity with the rise of freedom . . . Rather than finding political freedom rising in opposition to the religious values of the West, we see exactly the reverse: ideas of personal liberty and free government emerging in Christian Europe; institutional development of such ideas in the Middle Ages; vigorous defense of these in England, on the basis of medieval doctrine; the translation of such ideas and institutions to America by a religious people, and the persistence of this connection in our life and thought long past the founding era. If religion is the enemy of freedom, how are these matters to be explained?” Interestingly, the author concludes that, “On net balance, it is fair to say, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was the institution in Western history that did the most to advance the cause of constitutional statecraft.”

Mr. Evans accurately notes that the assumptions of modern thought “converge into a central thesis: If belief in religious absolutes implies repression, it follows that denial of such absolutes will lead to freedom. A stance of moral relativism is accordingly viewed as the proper outlook for a free society.” However, “the repeated translation of relativist value theory to ideas of despotic statecraft, and the resemblance of all the totalitarian movements in this respect, are striking.” One reason why relativism is a foundation of totalitarianism is “the effect of relativist theory in devaluing the individual, in denying all grounds for considering the human person worthy of respect. This is the most terrible of the totalitarian doctrines, and it is grounded squarely on a denial of religious absolutes.“ (Emphasis in original).

Mr. Evans’ analysis corresponds remarkably to the teachings of Pope John Paul II, especially in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. The twentieth century has produced more proclamations of human rights than any century, and yet has also produced the greatest violations of those rights in history. John Paul explains why, in that the denial of objective truth by today’s jurisprudence reduces law to a function of raw, totalitarian power: “Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others...[T]he root of modern totalitarianism is...the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate–no individual, group, class, nation or state.” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 99.)

As Mr. Evans correctly notes, “the transition from biblical to secularist belief is in fact a change from one religious system to the next.” “[P]agan cultures united religious and secular functions in the state, thereby precluding the idea of limits on its power, foreclosing the notion of any higher loyalty, denying refuge to the spirit.” The author describes the secular religions of the modern epoch as “actually a species of neopaganism.” Thus, the “worship of physical nature is glaringly evident in the chief political movement of the day– environmentalism.” In contrast, “[i]t was the religion and metaphysics of the Bible that overthrew the pagan state, then was subjected to a neopagan onslaught at the era of the Renaissance, redoubled by the French Enlightenment and its offspring. While the larger history is nowadays neglected, the religious-secular quarrels that we experience are in direct descent from this enduring conflict, dating from the remotest ages of society.”

The Supreme Court decisions under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment purport to maintain governmental neutrality between theism and non-theism. The public school teacher, for example, can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. But such suspension of judgment involves the implicit preference by the state of the agnostic creed of secular humanism. The supposed neutrality of the state entails in fact an aggressive promotion of that secular creed especially in the area of morals. School children cannot be told that premarital sex is morally wrong. They cannot be allowed to see the Ten Commandments on their classroom wall. But the secular religion requires that they be given condoms and instruction in how to use them. And they must be taught to be non-judgmental about the homosexual lifestyle and other manifestations of the new paganism. None of this is surprising. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “When you lose the supernatural, the natural passes into the unnatural all too quickly.’”

Mr. Evans shows that constitutionalism arose, especially in the emerging United States from a spiritually grounded effort to impose and enforce limits on the power of the state. Moreover, the author makes the necessary and generally neglected connection between Christianity and economic freedom. The “biblical worldview” encouraged economic freedom because it imposed “effective boundaries on the power of the state. The result was, eo ipso, to give rise to market economics.“

Mainstream Republicans and Beltway conservatives, however, would confine today’s Republican party strictly to an economic agenda. The “social issues” are divisive. However, if the Republicans follow the politics of inclusiveness on abortion and other moral issues, they will go the way of the Whigs who tried similarly to finesse the slavery issue. If an auto-destruction of the Republican Party makes way for a new party, that party will draw on the principles and conclusions ably advanced by Mr. Evans in this book. On the one hand, he says that, “anything which can decrease the power of the federal government should be encouraged.” But, more basically, he affirms that “we need, above all else, a reinfusion of religious precept in our national life and public custom.” “Recovery of our religious faith and its teachings should be our first and main concern. Without it, nothing much by way of practical improvement can be accomplished. With it, all the rest might readily be added.”

I have known the author of this book since before the Goldwater campaign. In numerous endeavors Stan Evans has demonstrated the steadiness of a vision well grounded in the realities of God and nature. He has inspired a generation of younger writers and his analyses stand up well under the test of time. This book, in my opinion, is his best work. He has gone to the foundation of the essentially religious war in which we are engaged. He is perceptive. He is erudite and most amazingly, he writes in readable English. If you have a relative or friend in the adult world, in college, or even in senior high school, give him or her this book. For that reader it will probably be a news flash – because it restates the truths we have forgotten to our detriment.